The Bunker: A Warning, a Weapon, a Windfall
The Bunker, delivered to our subscribers Wednesdays at 7 a.m., is a newsletter from the desk of National Security Analyst Mark Thompson. Sign up here to receive it first thing, or check back Wednesday afternoon for the online version.
This week in The Bunker: the Pentagon rolls out a new report on the China threat; three days later it rolls out a new bomber dealing with the China threat; Congress stuffs an already lardy Pentagon budget to deal with the China threat; and more.
THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME
A classic triple-bank shot for the bull in the China shop
Another week, another warning, another weapon, another windfall. By nature and inclination, the Pentagon is — like any bureaucratic behemoth —slow and lethargic. But it’s a different creature when it comes to highlighting potential threats and the hardware it says it needs to defeat them. Then, it’s as agile as a fleet-footed chameleon, zapping a dinner-time bug with its supersonic sticky tongue.
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“We’re aligning our budget as never before to the China challenge,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said December 3 in California, one day and 50 miles away from the site where he witnessed the rollout of the Pentagon’s newest bomber. He implored (PDF) Congress to pass next year’s defense authorization bill so the U.S. can “outcompete China,” as the Pentagon rolled out its own over-the-top assessment of the Chinese threat.
Cranking up the threat posed by Beijing
The Defense Department released its latest analysis of the China threat November 29. The report says China wants to be able to invade Taiwan by 2027, achieve a “complete modernization” of its armed forces by 2035, and attain a “world-class” military by 2049 — the 100th anniversary of the founding of the communist regime. The Pentagon also says China wants to mushroom its mushroom-cloud inventory. Newscasters fell in line:
“China could have 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035: Pentagon report,” CNN declared.
“China to more than triple nuclear warhead stockpile by 2035, Pentagon warns,” Fox News said.
Neither saw fit to rain on the Pentagon’s parade by noting that the U.S. has more than 5,000 nuclear warheads. Some military experts weren’t swayed. “We are tending towards overhyping the China threat in a way that could raise the risks of war,” Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution warned three days after the report’s release.
Dan Grazier, here at the Project On Government Oversight, concludes the U.S. is over-reacting to Beijing’s defensive game. “While their leaders have ramped up military spending in the past two decades, the investments being made are not suited for foreign adventurism but are instead designed to use relatively low-cost weapons to defend against massively expensive American weapons,” Grazier says in a report released December 7. “The nation’s primary military strategy is to keep foreign powers, and especially the United States, as far away from its shores as possible.”
But that’s too nuanced for the U.S. military. “China is not going to be a better military than the United States military is, but they’re going to try, but they’re not going to get there,” Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pledged November 16. “We will be number one five years from now, 10 years from now, and 50 years from now.” That is the way, he said, to “deter the war that people worry about, a great power war between China and the United States.”
The Milley industrial complex is a spotlight constantly scanning the night skies for the Next Big Threat. The Soviet Union was the U.S.’s post-World War II nemesis, until its poor economy revealed it to be a paper tiger. In the same way, China’s creaking demographics — and President Xi Jinping’s increasingly brittle hold on power — highlight just how much Moscow and Beijing are alike. When it comes to weighing threats, rarely does the U.S. national security state put democratic values, and their resulting strengths, on its side of the scale.
The real howler in the Pentagon’s China report is right on the cover. That’s where it says the 196-page study cost (PDF) $178,000. Yet its scare mongering will cost taxpayers billions in the years to come.
Think of it as the ultimate low-ball bid.
The Pentagon rolls out its first post-Cold War bomber
There is something contradictory in unveiling a stealth bomber, but the Pentagon and Northrop Grumman did just that December 2. A single bat-winged B-21 emerged from its hangar, cloaked in a sheet, after its predecessors — the B-52, the B-1, and the B-2 — screamed overhead (you can watch the reveal here, beginning at 24:20). The B-21 Raider, slated to start flying next year after seven years of top-secret development, will carry both nuclear and conventional weapons.
The desired message was delivered:
“U.S. Unveils B-21 Raider, the Stealth Bomber Designed to Deter China,” the Wall Street Journal said.
“Pentagon unveils first strategic bomber in over 30 years to counter China,” The Guardian reported.
The Air Force pegs the cost of the new planes at about $750 million each — so long as it buys 100 of them. The B-2’s price tag soared from $515 million to $2 billion a copy after production was slashed from 132 to 21. High operating costs and limited availability are why the Air Force is retiring its sophisticated Reagan-era B-1 and Clinton-era B-2 bombers while keeping the simpler Eisenhower-era B-52s flying.
Backers say bombers are still required. Missiles and drones “lack the range to strike targets deep in China’s interior when launched by non-survivable legacy aircraft beyond Chinese airspace,” retired Air Force colonel Chris Brunner, who served as a B-1 weapons operator, says. “Only a penetrating bomber can effectively persist in contested areas to find, identify, and attack highly mobile missiles that keep U.S. aircraft carriers and other forces out of the fight, or anti-satellite weapons located deep in China’s interior that threaten U.S. space assets.”
And only a Colonel Strangelove can argue that the nation should spend $75 billion for such gold-plated planes, for such a narrow role, when there are plenty of silver bullets that could do the job nearly as well.
Padding an already-bloated defense budget
Just as the B-21 took its first public bow, lawmakers back in Washington were wrapping up their work onthe 2023 defense policy bill. The legislation authorizes spending up to $858 billion, $45 billion more than President Biden sought. Given what they’ve heard, Americans are increasingly nervous about China. “Three-quarters (75%) now view China as an enemy, up from 65% in 2021 and 55% in 2018,” a new poll from the Ronald Reagan Foundation says.
The timing of the warning, weapon, and windfall may have been coincidental. But the synergy is not.
WHAT WE’RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker’s eye recently
Stephen Wertheim wrote a sobering piece December 2 in the New York Times about how Beijing and Washington may be drifting toward a major conflict.
Joel Mathis, writing on Substack December 4, weighed in on the prospect of losing his son in a U.S.-Chinese war over Taiwan.
Heather Williams, a veteran U.S. terrorist hunter, wrote November 30 in Politico about the mental trauma associated with her trade.
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